Words at Play

8 Old Words for Young People

'Younker', 'ephebe', and 6 more words that have definitely been around longer than the people they describe


A whippersnapper is a “diminutive, insignificant, or presumptuous person,” and, if we needed proof that it was not a compliment but a term of reproach, here is the word used in a lengthy harangue by Edgar Allan Poe, from his story “Loss of Breath”:

"Thou wretch! – thou vixen! – thou shrew!" said I to my wife on the morning after our wedding, "thou witch! – thou hag! – thou whipper-snapper! – thou sink of iniquity! – thou fiery-faced quintessence of all that is abominable! – thou – thou –"

The speaker in the story is then, gratifyingly, bereft of breath and stops.

Whippersnapper is usually used in a much milder way, as by an older person in order to emphasize the youth of the person being addressed. It seems to have come from an earlier word, snippersnapper, which was first used, with the same meaning, in the late 1500s. It may also have been influenced by whipster, a word used in much the same way by Shakespeare:

I am not valiant neither, but every puny whipster gets my sword.
Othello

Whippersnapper’s popularity peaked in the 1930s, making it seem to us, despite its Renaissance origins, recognizable and oldy-timey.

Moppet means “a young person” or “a child,” and is usually used in an endearing way. It comes from mop, an obsolete English word dating to the 1300s that meant both “a fool” and “a baby.” During the 1700s, it was used to mean “a young woman” or “damsel,” and, as an insulting term, “an effeminate man” or “a fop.” Those meanings have dropped from use. Today we know that this mop is unrelated to the mop that means “a tool for cleaning floors,” but Samuel Johnson, in his 1755 Dictionary, seemed to combine mop and puppet, with his definition:

Moppet, a puppet made of rags, as a mop is made.

Moppet is apparently unrelated to Muppet, which Jim Henson insisted wasn’t a combination of “marionette” and “puppet,” but rather a fun word that he made up.

Whiffet means “a small, young, or unimportant person,” but the undeniable cuteness of the word seems to have kept it from becoming a common term of reproach. Indeed, the word’s other meaning seems to confirm its cuddly sound: “a small dog,” used mostly in the 19th century.

Whiffet was used in relaxed and informal writing, such as this breezy passage from an early magazine movie review:

Particularly is this true in the case of William Haines. This cinemactor invariably plays the obnoxious, precocious whiffet who upsets plans, causes heartaches by his wilfulness.
—“The New Pictures,” Time Magazine, 10 October 1928

Whiffet seems to have developed from whippet, the name of a dog breed.

When used to refer to people, the Oxford English Dictionary records both whiffler and whifling as older synonyms of whiffet.

Younker comes from the Dutch word that means “young nobleman,” jonker. If younker looks a bit like the English word younger, there’s a good reason: younker’s root, the Dutch word jon, is an etymological cousin of young. Another cousin is the German borrowing Junker (pronounced \YUN-kur), used in English to mean either “a young German noble” or “a member of the Prussian landed aristocracy.” Both the Dutch and German words are compounds of a word meaning “young” and a word meaning “lord.”

In English, younker has been used to mean “a young man,” “youngster,” “child,” and, more specifically, “a junior seaman on board ship” (which is similar to one definition of youngster: “a midshipman who has served less than four years”).

Younker is a word that was used during the 19th century by such writers as James Fenimore Cooper, Charles Dickens, and Benjamin Disraeli, but its use has fallen off sharply since 1900.

Surfing’s first wave of popularity in the 1950s led to some novel lingo like wipe out and hang five. A term used to describe a young or inexperienced surfer, gremmie, developed around 1960 as a diminutive of gremlin. Gremlin began as a name used by RAF pilots in the 1920s for an unimportant person, and was then applied as the imaginary cause of mechanical problems (as in “a gremlin in the works”). For surfers, a gremmie can also mean either a young surfer who does not respect acknowledged codes of behavior in the water or a young person who hangs around at the beach but does not surf.

Gremmie saw a peak of popularity in the late 1960s, and its use in print has subsequently dropped sharply since the 1980s.

Bantling is a word for “a very young child” or “infant” that has a polished literary pedigree, having been used by Lord Byron, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The word could have developed from the German bänkling (“bastard”) from Bank, meaning “bench”—a reflection of the notion that such a child that was conceived on a bench of some sort and not in the marriage bed. It also may have developed from band meaning “swathe,” a reference to a baby’s swaddling clothes.

Ephebe, meaning “a young man,” is a variant of ephebus, “a youth of ancient Greece” or, more specifically, “an Athenian 18 or 19 years old training for full citizenship.” This word combines Greek elements: the prefix epi- meaning “on” or “at” and hēbē, meaning “early manhood” or “youth.” Unsurprisingly, ephebe is most often used in discussions of Ancient Greece, but it has been used to refer to young men who are finding their way as artists or poets.

Lass
Up Next
shiba-inus-are-notorious-for-texting-and-driving

Transitive and Intransitive Verbs, Auxiliary Verbs, and 6 More Grammar Terms You Used to Know

Lass is a word redolent with the color of Scottish, Irish varieties of English as well as the dialects of the north of England. It’s been part of English since the 1300s, and is still in active use meaning both “a young woman” and “sweetheart.” A less frequent Scottish use in the past meant “maidservant.”

Lass may have its roots in the Old Norse word for “unmarried,” but is more likely derived from a word meaning “rag,” las, from Old Danish, Old Norwegian, or Old Swedish.




Comments



Love words? Need even more definitions?

Subscribe to America's largest dictionary and get thousands more definitions and advanced search—ad free!